LEARNING FROM THE FOSSIL RECORD

JUDITH SCOTCHMOOR

LEARNING FROM the Fossil Record is a title carefully chosen for it conveys multiple concepts. Paleontologists, geologists, biologists, and others use the fossil record to learn about the past history of the Earth. Using this knowledge, we have gained an understanding of geologic processes that continue today, biodiversity past and present, species origination and extinction, past and present climates, oceans, and atmospheres among others. We have in fact been able to piece together the fascinating story of our dynamic Earth for the past 3.5 billion years.

At the same time, the title suggests that students also learn from the fossil record. By capitalizing on the popularity and intrigue of fossils, teachers can use paleontology to teach major concepts in science. Paleontology also provides a natural integration of multiple disciplines of science, as well as mathematics, history, and geography. Even more importantly however, while students learn from the fossil record, they learn and practice the process of science. This is the key to a scientifically literate society.

Start with T. rex. A terrific dinosaur. No wonder it has starred in numerous movies and children of all ages travel to museums to gaze at this awesome beast. But while gazing, numerous questions arise. What did it eat? Why are its arms so short? Where did it live? How did it die? How do we know?

These questions follow two paths of inquiry. One deals with the process of science. How do we know? How do we learn about what no longer exists? This provides a wonderful opportunity for teachers to teach what science really is — the steps to scientific inquiry. Students themselves can examine the fossil record and use actual data to put together pieces of evidence to answer questions about the past.

The second path of inquiry involves looking at a larger picture. Tyrannosaurus rex did not live in isolation. To understand T. rex, we must know about its environment and its interactions within that environment. Things were not static. Thus, we must understand the changes that led to the success and eventually the demise of this and other dinosaurs. We are actually studying a single chapter or episode in a much larger story — the history of our Earth.
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The story is a complex one and some chapters are more appropriately told to one grade level than to another. Nonetheless to understand the entire story, parts need to be told again and again throughout a student's entire learning. The telling of the complete story, as we now see it, facilitates conceptual learning addressed by the National Science Education Standards (NSES), Benchmarks, and State Frameworks. It deals directly with each of the unifying content standards of the NSES: Systems, order, and organization Evidence, models, and explanation Constancy, change, and measurement Evolution and equilibrium Form and Function.

The story is also thematic with three organizing themes, each associated with one of the major fields of science: Energy (Physical Science), Tectonics (Earth Science), and Evolution (Life Science). In a condensed version of the story, energy is contained with the Earth. Plate tectonics is a manifestation of that energy and acts as the changing force responsible for the Earth as we see it today. Add the factor of time and we have evolution — not just the evolution of life, but of Earth itself. The distribution of organisms throughout Earth's history is a direct result of the interaction of energy and tectonics. We cannot study Biology without including Evolution, nor can we study Evolution without understanding Tectonics and Energy. Just as T. rex did not live in isolation, these major concepts cannot be understood (or taught) in isolation.

What follows is a collection of informative papers and activities to assist teachers in using paleontology and related fields to teach major concepts in science. They also help to tell part of the story of the Earth. The authors are teachers, professors, and scientists, all of whom have a passion for paleontology and a commitment to science education. They have contributed to this collaborative effort in the knowledge that this is just a starting point — a base from which to begin to develop a more thorough resource guide and curriculum easily adapted for use in the science classroom. To allow for its continued expansion and accessibility by a greater audience, the UC Museum of Paleontology has developed a World Wide Web (WWW) version of this manual. The address of this site is:

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/fosrec/

The following contributions are arranged roughly by concept. They begin with geologic processes, time and methods of dating, interpreting the fossil record, and evolution. Using dinosaurs to teach science comes next, followed by a complete section on Microfossils — what are they, why are they important, how to use them in the classroom. Where appropriate, suggested grade levels are indicated. Each activity is also listed in a matrix in the appendix indicating which of the National Standards are met.
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Once again, I would like to stress that this is only the beginning. I would also like to thank each of the authors for their contributions and their enthusiastic support for this project.

NOTE: We strongly encourage others to contribute to the WWW version of this compendium. These can be sent to Judy Scotchmoor, Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-4780, e-mail jscotch@uclink4.berkeley.edu

REFERENCE

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL. 1996. National science education standards. National Academy Press, Washington, DC., 262 pp.